What Le Bernadin Can Teach Us About Bad Service

One of America’s Top 50 Restaurants turns away customers seeking a $55 lunch over a $3 cup of Starbucks tea and in so doing offers many lessons in what not to do.

Ever since my days at The Breakers Palm Beach – a Five Star, Five Diamond hotel with a Five Star, Five Diamond restaurant – I have wanted to visit Le Bernardin in New York City.  During my stint at The Breakers I was responsible for marketing the $50 million food and beverage operations at the hotel and off-site venues.  We hosted the very prestigious and elite Mobil Awards honoring the top 50 restaurants in the United States and Le Bernardin was a recurring winner.  Le Bernardin was also a case study we considered as we created our own new fine dining venues.

Le Bernardin, in case you are not familiar with it, was Zagat’s Top Pick for 2007, has been awarded 3 Michelin Stars as well as the New York Times’ very highest rating.  In all, the awards bestowed upon Le Bernardin read like a checklist of the restaurant industry’s most coveted accolades.

During a recent business trip to New York City (February 7-9, 2010) I made it a point to finally check Le Bernardin off my list of must-visit restaurants.  I checked in to the Westin Times Square and gleefully marched the ten blocks down the road in 18 degree weather to try my luck without a reservation.  I suspected that it might be hard to get a table, even in this recession and on an off-night, but I was so excited to finally eat at Le Bernardin that I was willing to wait or reschedule if they could not accommodate me.

With a big smile and fully loaded credit card I made my way to the maître d’. “Can you accommodate one this evening?”  I inquired.  With an indifferent, sarcastic and almost insulted tone, the thin French maître d’ said with a chuckle, “No sir, we cannot accommodate you.”  Fine. I knew they would be busy and I knew the odds were against me getting in without a reservation. So instead, I paused, waiting for him to ask to schedule me for another evening or time.  That didn’t happen.  Rather, he stretched his insincere smile a bit further and squeezed his face as if he was at once humored I was still in his presence and disturbed that I had bothered to find my way there. Apparently this was the end of our conversation – with no further effort on his part to help serve a hungry customer.

I ended up at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole back near Times Square and my hotel.  Equally famed and comparably priced, Aureole graciously and warmly welcomed me in – even without a reservation.  Their dining room seemed more bustling and lively.  My meal was superbly cooked and the service was professional, experienced and very accommodating.  From my table I sent tweets (www.twitter.com/qmg) out to nearly 8,000 Twitter followers with a play-by-play of my meal.  Several people tweeted back to me with all sorts of positive remarks and more than a few said “I’m adding Aureole to my list of must-visit restaurants.”

After a satisfying meal I slid into my Westin “Heavenly Bed” and started flipping channels.  As fate and irony would have it, one of the guests on Jimmy Fallon’s show that night was Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin!  I almost couldn’t believe it!  Chef Ripert was funny, charismatic and his appearance convinced me that even with the bad experience I had with his maître d’, I should give him and his restaurant another shot.  Every restaurant deserves a second chance – especially one as famed as Le Bernardin – and given this new “sign from above” I decided that I should return.

So the next day I walked back to Le Bernardin, figuring that I would try their $55 prix fixe lunch.  I ordered a hot tea from the Starbucks near my hotel and started the march in the freezing headwinds back to Le Bernardin.  (Did I mention that I’m from Florida? Making another wintertime walk in New York City was a sacrifice for me.)

This time, I was greeted with a less restrained and not so seemingly forced smile and told that I needn’t have a reservation and could be accommodated immediately.  One catch – “Sir, we will dispose of that for you, but you cannot bring it inside,” the hostess said, referring to my Starbucks tea, while looking at it as if I was holding a bag of freshly scooped dog poop.

“Um, yeah, but I just bought it and it’s only now cooled to the point to drink…I’m happy to buy another here in addition to this one, but I’m suffering from a bit of a caffeine headache and would like to finish it,” I said, while my eyes scanned for a manager that might see to my rescue.  As my luck would have it, the same maître d’ from the prior evening was on duty for this shift too, and with an even more prejudiced, marginalizing and catty-cheerleader smirk said, “Sorry sir.”

I tried to appeal to their senses. “I’m in the restaurant business, I have had this restaurant on my list for years, I tried to come here last night, walked back today, plan to order an expensive tasting menu and you are honestly going to turn me away if I want to keep my tea?” I asked.  “Yes, sir, I’m sorry.”

I can fully understand a restaurant turning away a patron who is trying to bring in alcohol, or a movie theater refusing to allow outside food and beverage.  I cannot, however, understand why such a highly rated restaurant would turn away lunch business in the middle of a recession with such careless abandon.  The point wasn’t to keep the tea.  It was the rudeness and disdain of the door-cop.

Not only was I extremely frustrated by the situation, I immediately shared this experience with my nearly 8,000 Twitter followers (most of whom are restaurant industry professionals and media).  I vowed to never again attempt to return to Le Bernardin and – no matter the company or occasion – if the name Le Bernardin comes up, I plan to deliver a very passionate message about why I am boycotting their restaurant.

So, what can a top 50 restaurant teach us about bad service?

Lessons:

1.    Don’t Believe Your Own Hype – While publicity can be worth its weight in gold for a restaurant, vanity and “celebrity” can be its downfall. When a speeding locomotive goes off the tracks, it still maintains forward momentum for quite a while.  Similarly, when a restaurant reaches its pinnacle it can fall into the “too good to fail” mindset.  When this happens, standards drop, customers are turned away as if there is a never ending supply of them, and a kind of resentment can build that turns the tides on the restaurant’s success.  Chef Ripert seems to be on television more than in his own restaurant these days.  Sure, they still are winning the awards and can afford to turn away customers like panhandlers today, but it’s that exact sort of taking your eye off the ball that leads to people saying, “That place sure isn’t what it used to be.”

2.    Boycott & Protest – As diners, when we receive bad service, it is not only our “right” but our duty to complain.  And when complaints fall on deaf or indifferent ears, it’s our duty to boycott.  It won’t be until Le Bernardin starts to notice an empty dining room and falling reservation count that they take complaints and issues like this seriously.  For more, also read this article on your duty to complain.

3.    Everyone is a Critic with an Audience – There was a time when restaurant critics could make or break a restaurant with a review.  In those days, Siskel and Ebert could also make or break a movie with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  These days, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton sways moviegoers with his film reviews and it’s the modern day food blogger that carries the power to influence the opinions of restaurant customers, not the local newspaper restaurant critic.  The power to influence customer opinion is more diffuse – instead of relying on a few central opinion leaders for restaurant reviews, people use Urban Spoon and other user-generated sites where “average” restaurant customers post reviews from their laptops and cell phones. Not only is the power of restaurant reviews changing and evolving, but the new universe of social media makes it possible for word of mouth to spread faster than ever: if Facebook were a country, it would be the 5th largest in the world.  Twitter has made instant news and communication a global phenomenon and within the reach of anyone with an Internet connection.  Before I even stepped onto the sidewalk after my disappointment at Le Bernardin, I had tweeted my frustration to my personal audience of Twitter followers – and many of them promptly forwarded my story on to their other friends in the restaurant industry.  In the past, an upset customer would tell 10 friends; today they can tweet 10,000 from their table.  The stakes have grown.  Everyone is a critic and has an audience.  For more on that, also read this article on restaurant social media.

4.    Don’t put Cops in Charge of the Door – We’ve long heard how important it is to make a good first impression and how you never get a second chance – especially in the restaurant business.  While generally few would disagree with this adage, it’s painfully surprising to me how many restaurateurs still put the least hospitable people they have at the door.  For instance, bouncers at night clubs or a stuffy and indifferent maître d’ in this case.  Why spend so much time, effort and money to get customers if you have a maître d’ that greets them with a shin-kick at the front door?

5.    Remember Acquisition Costs – In business to business marketing, the typical cost to gain a new customer is $170 each.  A study has not yet been conducted to accurately estimate this cost for the restaurant industry, but I would suspect that this dollar amount wouldn’t be far off.  With this in mind, it seems hardly worth chasing away customers over a $3 tea.  Keeping a $3 cup of tea out of your dining room isn’t worth ruining a new customer’s first-time experience (and throwing away their lifetime value to your restaurant).  There are only four ways for a restaurant to increase sales – New Trial, Frequency, Check Average and Party Size.  For more in depth descriptions, please take a look at this article on restaurant sales building strategies.  Of those four, the most expensive and least effective is New Trial; a new customer coming in for the first time.  I was “New Trial” business for Le Bernardin.  Not only will I not be back, but since my previous positive impression of Le Bernardin was so carelessly shattered, I will probably carry the experience and comments about it around for quite a while – being sure to share my story when the occasion arises.  Was that worth keeping out a cup of Starbucks tea?  Nope.  Do you think their maître d’ cares?  Nope.  Ultimately it’s the restaurant’s investors that get burned.

6.    The Restaurant Industry Need a New Awards System – Fine dining doesn’t always mean it’s the best dining experience.  I’d rather have street food in Thailand served by someone that loves what they do than be treated like a vagrant in a stuffy Manhattan eatery – no matter how good the food is.  The service was far better at The Spotted Pig (where I ended up the second time Le Bernardin turned me away).  Anthony Bourdain seems to be one of the few media commentators in the restaurant world who truly tries to highlight the best food and the best dining experiences – which doesn’t necessarily mean the high-end stuff.  In fact, with the rare exception of his friend Chef Eric Ripert, Bourdain usually shows his disdain for the boys club of slick celebrity chefs.  All in all, my recent experience at Le Bernardin leads me to believe that we need a new awards system for our industry – one that makes it possible for prestigious industry accolades to go to restaurants for reasons other than nepotism, large wine cellars, expensive décor, and a chef that cares more about television appearances than the daily grind of running a successful restaurant. Is it coincidence alone that Aureole is directly beside the goliath Condé Nast headquarters?  Or that Le Bernardin is just two blocks from Rockefeller Center where Chef Ripert frequently makes appearances on NBC Shows like Jimmy Fallon and The Today Show?  Many awards are political and have as much to do with proximity as substance – if your restaurant is in the same neighborhood as the media elite, then you’re more likely to get noticed by the people with the big media megaphones. But that doesn’t mean your restaurant is truly “the best.”

7.    Fame Precedes the Fall – Le Bernardin was no doubt once a world-class restaurant, and in many ways I’m sure it still is – although I didn’t get a chance to eat there.  However, the siren call of media opportunities, TV shows and licensing wealth has led many well-known restaurateurs and chefs away from their core businesses (just look at Rocco DiSpirito and Gordon Ramsay; Rocco is getting to the point where he’s best known for his appearance on Dancing With the Stars, and Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants are closing faster than a bag of fresh scallops).

8.    Never Hire People Who You Would Not Want to Represent You in Your Absence – The television persona of Chef Eric Ripert is very different than the real-life persona of the man hired to represent him (the maître d’).  As a rule, you should never hire someone who you would not willingly send to represent you in your absence.  I have not met Chef Ripert in person so I do not know if his on-camera persona is the same or very different than the man is in person.  I do know that the maître d’ does not represent the restaurant or Chef Ripert in a flattering way, and that is all I have to judge the restaurant at this point since that maître d’ was the extent of the experience that I was able to have at Le Bernardin.  Every well-known chef is a brand – and the more famous you become, the more vigilant you need to be in protecting your brand. When Chef Ripert goes on TV and appears to be a charismatic, funny, warm person – all while his maître d’ is being rude to customers – that creates a damaging disconnect in his brand image. Every restaurateur should take this lesson to heart – your staff is representing you to your customers every hour, every day. Hire accordingly.

I don’t hold a grudge toward Chef Ripert.  In fact, I believe he must be a quality person if he’s endorsed by Anthony Bourdain.  I do however hold a grudge toward the restaurant and especially toward the arrogant mindset that would allow such things to happen.  We’re in the hospitality industry, and we need to be humble and welcoming and solicitous toward our customers – not turn them away like bouncers at an exclusive nightclub. I guess I should be mostly thankful though, as being turned away twice from Le Bernardin turned me on to two other restaurants that I now highly recommend – Aureole and The Spotted Pig.  I am thankful also to have been reminded of several “what not to do” guidelines for successful restaurant management.

UPDATE TO THIS BLOG HERE.

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